It was one of the worst disasters in the history of the Aegean cities: last summer big forest fires hit the western Turkish province of Izmir. They started on August 18 ravaging the districts of Karabağlar, Menderes and Seferihisar for four days.
According to official figures, 500 hectares of land were affected, but Izmir Mayor Tunç Soyer claims that the damage was much greater. What is sure, is that hundreds of animals and plants perished, and agriculture in the area was heavily hit.
On our way to these forests, we meet a couple of villagers with their nine or ten-year-old daughter. They tell us that they lost their vineyards: "Besides harming nature and agriculture in the area, the fires hurt us economically and psychologically,” says the husband. "Here it was a paradise, we want it protected." His wife complains: “It will take 40 years for this forest to grow again." Still, they want the forest protected for the younger generation, such as their little girl, who is playing with her parents' smartphone while we speak.
Izmir is the third-largest city in Turkey, and its municipality is one of the most environmentally aware in a country that faces many challenges in the field. In the past, citizens fought against controversial choices made by politicians, such as plans to construct a coal power plan in 2016. In March 2019 they elected Mayor Tunç Soyer, known, among other things, for bringing the Cittaslow movement, a quality-of-life watchdog, to Turkey.
It should come as no surprise, then, that the Municipality decided to involve the population in the decision-making process after the wildfires. On August 30, the City Council held an extraordinary meeting inside the forest. Here villagers and city folk had a chance to share their points of view.
On the same day, a concert was held to raise funds. It was organised by the Municipality on the initiative of the popular, politically engaged singer Haluk Levent.
Turkey has declared November 11 National Forestation Day. Forests are crucial in the fight against climate change. Serdar Gökhan Senol, Associate Professor at the Biology department of Ege University Faculty of Science, explains: “The greenhouse effect is damaging the cities. We need big forests surrounding them, otherwise we won't be able to control the temperature rise inside the cities."
However, warns Senol, reforestation should be done in a "natural way", one which preserves the local biodiversity, while the government authorities seem to be more focused on the economic aspect of the process. This is why there are frictions between the city experts, such as Senol himself, and the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry.
According to the biologist, government officials have already started excavating the area to plant new trees, whereas sometimes it is just better to let nature take care of it. He explains that red pine trees even need fires, sometimes - "natural" fires, he specifies - so that the cones on the top of the branches can explode, expelling their seeds over 100 metres or more.
"Red pines germinate easily after a fire,” he continues, “No need to excavate, with the risk of causing soil erosion. But the Ministry wants fast solutions, and letting the trees grow by themselves is not fast. Planting new trees is.”
And the first danger is urban development. The Municipality has thus started to work on a strategy to incorporate nature in the city as it expands. Against this backdrop, Izmir is receiving support from the EU project URBAN GreenUP, as it’s one of its frontrunner cities together with Liverpool (UK) and Valladolid (Spain).
The EU project is meant to bring nature into the city (nature-based solutions or NBS), but Izmir also needs to bring the city into nature. Thami Croeser, spatial analyst at the University of Melbourne, partner of URBAN GreenUP, explains: “Izmir is growing very rapidly, it has started to push outwards and it is surrounded by wetlands. Therefore it's a city that has the challenge of managing heat within it, but also it is bound by protected environmental assets."
Koray Velibeyoğlu from the Department of City and Regional Planning, Izmir Institute of Technology, adds that the population rose from 1.5 million in 1984 to 4.2 million in 2014. According to projections, it will reach 6.2 million by 2030 and 8 million by 2050. Therefore the urban area is destined to grow no matter what, and it will include the forests around the city.
The Municipality’s strategy includes peri-urban parks that are buffer zones between rural and urban areas, to establish a connection between the central greenbelt and natural ecosystems such as forests. Moreover, the urban river systems connected to Izmir Bay will be considered as an integral part of the city’s green infrastructure.
The Izmir Municipality also intends to apply to the EUROPARC Federation, the largest network of European protected areas.
By Selene Verri